An Olympic hurdle: why is the decathlon only for men?

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Jordan Gray wants to bring a women’s decathlon to the Olympics. Even if it happens long after she was able to participate in the event.

“The goal is 2024,” Gray, a 25-year-old Georgian and US record holder in the women’s decathlon, said recently by phone. Her movement – Let Women Decathlon – is nearly 20,000 petition signatures in favor of adding the event to the Olympics in the name of gender equality in athletics, and it is gaining the support of Olympic icons who crossed similar barriers decades ago.

For now, Gray and his peers can only compete for Olympic spots in the seven-event heptathlon, while the decathlon is reserved for men. She finished 11th in heptathlon at the track and field trials in the United States last month, ending her hopes of competing in Tokyo this summer. His fight for equality is not over, however.

“The women are aligned,” Gray said. The women’s decathlon is already approved by some sport governing bodies, such as the International Association of Athletics Federations and USA Track & Field. The event has been contested by women around the world for decades, but in the United States, the first national women’s decathlon title was awarded in 2019.

“If you start it, they will come,” Gray said. “I’m not doing this so that I can go to the Olympics in the event that I love. By loving the decathlon, I realize that it is an inequality that must be corrected.

With roots in ancient Greece, the decathlon – a series of 10 track and field events – made its Olympic debut in 1912. Like most Olympic sports of the time, only men participated.

Contested over two days, the decathlon featured races of 100 meters, 400 meters and 1,500 meters, 110 meters hurdles, long jump, high jump, pole vault, discus throw, shot put and the javelin throw. Shortly after its introduction, the competition became known as the determinant of the world’s greatest athlete.

Women’s track and field events first appeared at the 1928 Olympics, with three races and two throwing events, only to see the 800-meter run eliminated for several decades because many athletes had collapsed at the finish line, raising concerns.

that women were not physically equipped to go that far.

“The men fell apart just as much,” said Pat Winslow Connolly, a three-time Olympian who was the first American woman to compete in the 800-meter race on her return to the 1960 Olympics. She was also among the first to compete in the women’s Olympic pentathlon (80-meter hurdles, shot put, high jump, long jump and 200-meter run) when it was introduced in 1964.

Connolly realized early on that opportunities for women in athletics were lacking.

“My last pentathlon was in 1970,” she says. “Throughout the course, I wanted to pole vault. I wanted to do the decathlon. It was like the pentathlon, what is it? Half as good? I never liked it, especially when they added the 800 and the javelin to make it a heptathlon.

The heptathlon (100-meter hurdles, high jump, long jump, shot put, javelin throw, 200 meters and 800 meters) replaced the pentathlon in 1984. The new event quickly gained attention in the United States. , not because it was one more step into the decathlon, but because of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a UCLA star from East St. Louis, Illinois.

After winning silver in the 1984 heptathlon, she won gold in that event at the next two Summer Games. Her score of 7,291 points at the 1988 Olympics remains the women’s heptathlon world record.

Joyner-Kersee, who now heads a foundation aimed at providing athletic, academic and leadership opportunities for children in East St. Louis, believes an Olympic decathlon is a logical step for women in athletics.

“At first I wasn’t a big fan, then I was like, why not be a fan?” she said. “I want every young girl to have the opportunity to benefit from the multi-events. I see so many talented young girls on the verge of something spectacular, but they give up the multi. I think the curiosity around it is worth a try. What can women do? Can they do 10 events? I don’t think a woman can do anything. If you want to do it, you find the balance.

It’s not easy to add three events to your repertoire.

“When they switched from pentathlon to heptathlon, my biggest fear was learning to throw the javelin,” Joyner-Kersee said. “We didn’t have it in high school. When I picked it up for the first time, I hit my head. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got a long way to go.’ “

For Kendell Williams, who will compete in the heptathlon in Tokyo, the pole vault is a break. She grew up on the racetrack and, along with her brother, Devon Williams, began adding field events under their father’s guidance.

“I cringe when my brother is pole vaulting,” said Williams. “It looks really cool when done right, but I’ve seen people stabbed with the pole, getting burned. I saw the post slam. We have spent all these years preparing for the heptathlon events. It’s hard to expect someone to pick up the discus and something as technical as pole vault.

She understands the pressure for equality, although she believes that if a women’s decathlon were added to the Olympics, “you would see a decline in talent,” especially if it were to replace heptathlon.

“It’s a whole different beast than heptathlon,” said Williams. “If you look at the end of a decathlon, it looks like the guys have been slaughtered. I imagine you are really feeling the three additional events.

Heptathletes feel exhausted as they finish the two days of competition with what is arguably their most difficult event – the 800-meter race. The decathlon ends with the 1500 meters. “A number of times I walked to the 800 line and said, ‘Thank goodness I don’t have to run the 1500,’ Joyner-Kersee said.

Heptathletes are seen as primarily speed-oriented and decathletes more focused on endurance, which is why athletes like Gray are unlikely to match their success in the decathlon and qualify for the Olympic Games. heptathlon.

“Heptathlon is very suitable and favorable for those who are fast,” said Gray coach Andy Eggerth, who coaches both heptathletes and decathletes. “A lot of world-class heptathletes are relatively bad at the javelin and shot put.”

“Heptathletes are sprinters and jumpers,” Gray added. “As a decathlete, where you’re not fast, you need that upper body strength. Strength is the biggest difference. I hate the 800. You have to be more of a racehorse to do the 800. I think the 1500 is easier. It’s slower, more of a mental game. It is well known that we decathletes are better at endurance.

Gray, who broke the American decathlon record in 2019, does not want the women’s decathlon to replace heptathlon at the Olympics.

But that’s the only way things would realistically turn out, according to Anita DeFrantz, vice president of the International Olympic Committee.

“Most likely we should replace heptathlon with decathlon,” DeFrantz said. “It wouldn’t be both. The Games are not meant to be a world championship in every sport. It’s supposed to be events that show the highest level of sport. Having both heptathlon and decathlon would be redundant.

She added that the IAAF should ask for the change.

Gray, who planned to discuss the matter with IAAF officials after the Tokyo Olympics, said she believed her quest for change was long overdue. “I am creating stories so that 6 year old girls can go now,” she said.


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